The Spirit of Zen, written in the early thirties by Watts when he was still a teenager, is not to be mistaken for his strikingly accomplished The Way of Zen, written some years later. It is to be treasured however for those who admire Watts and his unique and highly influential body of work because it was his first published book on Zen Buddhism.
It is clearly a young man's book. When it was reissued some twenty-four years later, Watts was asked to revise it, but he declined, saying that it would require a rewriting of the book. He allowed that his expression herein of the philosophy of Mahayana was flawed, but I think the real shortcoming--if we can call it that--in The Spirit of Zen is simply the fact that the very young author did not understand Zen in the way he would in years to come. For an older man to rewrite a younger man's book, even though that younger man be himself, is to create another book, by another person. Watts knew this, and that is undoubtedly the real reason he declined. So he let it stand as it is with its flaws, but also with its strengths.
From my point of view those strengths are the felicitous prose, the clear expression, the fresh enthusiasm and the ground-breaking insights from a Western point of view. The weakness is in the young man's misunderstanding of the role of the koan and of the experience of enlightenment. Quite frankly, Watts dove in and wrote what he knew, but what he knew was not yet enlightenment. We can see this in his expression about what he calls "trance" in meditation where he is discussing the use of the koan and zazen in Zen practice. He remarks that "the aims of Yoga and Za-zen appear to be rather different." (p. 80) He was wise to quality with "appears" because most people today would say that the goals are identical, that is, freedom from the delusion and restraint of ordinary conditioned consciousness. On the same page he describes "trance" which he then associated with the yogic practice, as "static and other-worldly" adding that "the Chinese mind [meaning the early Zen mind] required something altogether more vital and practical." Although I am not an authority on Watts, having read only a handful of his books, I would bet that he seldom if ever used "trance" in this sense again. The word has become almost pejorative in this usage mainly because practitioners know from personal experience that meditation involves any number of states of mind, and to reduce the experience to "being in a trance" is misleading. Meditation (which really is zazen--"just sitting") is an experience unique to each individual, not translatable, while being as "vital and practical" as you can get, whether the approach be yogic, Christian mystic, whirling dervish, koan-inspired or whatever.
One can also see Watts's struggle toward an understanding of the use of the koan. He writes that the disciple "arrives at a state where the dilemma of life [is] enshrined in the Koan...," missing the "is." (p. 49) While the koan is central to the Rinzai school of Zen, the real essential is zazen. My personal feeling is that the koan is for young aspirants, especially those with a strong intellectual bent. What Watts apparently doesn't quite see here, as all the ancients insist, and as Watts himself writes, is that Zen IS meditation. Indeed, the word comes from the Chinese "ch'an" which comes from the Sanskrit "dhyana," both words meaning, right in front of our faces, "meditation" (which Watts knew, of course). The truth--a truth seldom expressed--is that teenagers do not meditate except willy-nilly (unless of course they are saints or geniuses). So Watts still did not know.
Regardless of these imperfections; indeed in light of them, we can see the precocious nature of Alan Watts's understanding. Certainly he got the essence right. He recalls on page 49 an old Zen saying, "Do not linger about where the Buddha is, and as to where he is not, pass swiftly on." Also "The only difference between a Buddha and an ordinary man is that one realizes it while the other does not." (pp. 48-49) This last expression (from Hui Neng) reminds me of the idea of bliss in yoga and Vedanta. We ARE bliss. What we have to do is realize it. That makes all the difference.
Watts also shows here a mature understanding of the psychology of religion, noting, for example, on page 61 that "morality should not be confused with religion..." In the chapter, "Life in a Zen Community," he also acknowledges the "evils of monasticism" without dwelling on them. In general he shows a clear groking of the central idea of Zen, which is, be concrete, be here now and in every moment, and do not mistake the pointing finger for the moon.
More than anything perhaps we can see in this book the beginnings of Watts's great scholarship, a scholarship that made him one of American's foremost authorities on Eastern religions. This is particularly evident in his emphasis on the debt that Zen owes to Taoism expressed in the chapter, "The Origins of Zen," which would become a full blown exposition in his celebrated The Way of Zen, which I recommend the reader read after this volume.
Incidentally, I should like to say that it was this book that allowed me to really appreciate the allegory of the herding of the ox (mentioned here, but completely expounded in other books, especially, Suzuki's Manual of Zen Buddhism). But I will save my "understanding" for another time. Suffice it to say, as Watts writes on page 60, recalling the Buddha's dictum, that the raft of Buddhism is only for getting across the river. Once on the other side, it can be left behind.
This slim volume, written during its author's nineteenth year, is remarkable for it's intelligence and the insight it reveals into a subject that little was known about at the time. Originally published in 1935 in London, Alan Watts' The Spirit of Zen demonstrates a maturity of perception far beyond its young writer's years.
For the reader who is already familiar with Watts, it provides us with a rare glimpse of the master in his formative years, and shows, even at this young age, the ease with which he was able to describe the indescribable, an ability that became his stock in trade.
The current volume, in its third edition, published in 1958, has luckily been unrevised in the main with only additions to the bibliography for the discerning reader to pursue.
As an introduction to Zen Buddhism it achieves its goal astonishingly in 123 pages during which it covers a little of the history of Zen; the heart of what Zen attempts to accomplish--enlightenment; the principle techniques that it uses--zazen and the koan; what life must have been like in a Zen community; and the affect it had on Asian civilization.
This book shows Watts in the midst of quickly seeing into and revealing to his readers the heart of its subject, as though to give them the key before they even have the chance to open the door and look, unassisted, for themselves.
As Monica Furlong states in her 1986 biography Zen Effects: The Life of Alan Watts: "It is easy to sense the pleasure with which it [The Spirit of Zen] was written, a particular sort of freshness and enthusiasm that is infinitely touching....But the book remains an important one for those interested in Watts...he [has] managed to state, in a rudimentary way, most of the ideas that would interest and occupy him for the rest of his life."
Of course, the best way for the uninitiated reader to sample the flavor of Watts' supple insight is to allow the author to speak for himself. In the following passage Watts sums up the spirit of Zen as well as what became for him the central theme behind the most magical of his writing:
"For the Koan is not a means of inducing trance as if some kind of trance were the highest possible attainment for human beings; it is simply a means of breaking through a barrier, or as the Zen masters describe it, it is a brick with which to knock at the door; when the door is opened, the brick may be thrown away, and this door is the rigid barrier which man erects between himself and spiritual freedom."